Cullen Hoback hasn’t really had a proper home for the last year -- “Keeping the government on its toes,” the director jokes. Sort of: He knows that they know that he knows that they probably knew where he was all the time.
Hoback’s documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply” is, in part, an operations manual for the 21st Century tech-savvy human. Have you ever signed an online user agreement? Of course you have. Have you ever read the fine print? Of course you haven’t. As one learns via the film, if any of us web-browsing hipsters ever actually read what we were agreeing to, it would take us 180 hours a year.
And what’s in there? As “Terms and Conditions” tells it, the U.K.-based Game Station included a clause in its 2009 user agreement that included loss of the signees immortal soul. They collected 7,000 souls before changing the wording. Which no one reads.
But Hoback’s doc, which was two years in the making, is also about government surveillance, the NSA, the complicity of social networking sites and Google. It was completed well before the emergence of Edward Snowden, whose revelations are a mixed blessing for Hoback: On one hand, the fugitive Booze-Allen factotum kick-started the conversation about privacy and our lack of it. On the other, he’s helped reveal how apathetic Americans actually are.
“The conversation is being controlled by people in very high places,” Hoback cautioned, “and I think public support was more on Snowden’s side earlier, before he started plane hopping to countries with which we have a mixed history.”
Still, he said, the threat is real. And kind of embarrassing. “We were screening in San Francisco not long ago, which is the nexus of technology,” Hoback said, “and there were plenty of people from Google including this one fellow, who was from China, who said, ‘I had no idea that this was going on.”’
He proceeded to tell Hoback that in China’s version of Twitter, the user would be censored in real time for writing something objectionable. “What I thought was fascinating is that what we’ve done in America is more insidious, because we’ve had the sense that the government HASN’T been monitoring everything. The greatest trick the NSA ever pulled was making us think they weren’t spying on us. The Chinese guy said, ‘I thought America was so much different from China.’”
Hoback, who has launched the film’s website, said if there was an overarching concept to the doc, “it was wanting the audience to be the main character and have it go on a traditional three-act journey.” Of course, the more Hoback dug up, the more he had to modify the structure. “I think for most people, the film plays out the way making it played out for me,” he said. “Just realizing how we got here, and how deep it all goes.”